Filling Winfield’s huge shoes on King bench, Burton leads Crusaders to one-point tourney win over Kent City
OKEMOS — It’s been nearly 40 years since Detroit King went into a girls basketball game with someone other than William Winfield listed as the head coach on the roster.
But after 37 years and nearly 700 wins on the bench at King, and after a health scare earlier this year that kept him away from his team for much of last year’s tournament run, Winfield was in the stands at Okemos High School Saturday, watching one of his former players coach the current Crusaders on the floor.
Gwen Burton, who suited up for Winfield from 1986-90, before playing at Louisville, then coaching at Chicago State and Eastern Illinois, is now the official head coach at King, and led her Crusaders to a 40-39 win over Kent City in the first game of the day at the Start to March tournament.
“Oh, my God, it’s great (to see him). I see him everyday anyway. He doesn’t come to any practices at all, but I stop in and surprise him,” said Burton, admitting her assignment of replacing her mentor is a bit daunting. “It’s a new experience for me, stepping into a legend’s shoes. It’s almost like Pat Summitt, and me being Holly (Warlick) again. I don’t want nobody to hate me.”
It’s not far off from that scenario, where Warlick replaced the legendary Summitt at Tennessee. Winfield finished with 698 career wins — by National Federation of State High School Associations rules, he was not credited with the tournament wins accrued by King en route to the quarterfinals, when Burton was on the bench in his stead — leaving him third on the all-time girls basketball wins list in state history, behind Sandusky’s Al DeMott (706 and counting) and Detroit Country Day’s Frank Orlando (785 and counting). Winfield won five Class A state titles: 1985, 1990, 1991, 2003, 2006.
Burton took over for Winfield after he was hospitalized with his bout with dehydration at the end of last season, but it was not a lock that she’d be back to take over for him for good this winter. She’s the head coach of the Henry Ford Community College women’s basketball team, as well, and had a few offers to join Division I coaching staffs as an assistant.
“I didn’t. I didn’t. I had to figure out myself if I was going to stay in the area,” Burton said. “Especially at this stage of my life, you want to have financial stability. But I love kids, and this right here is my community, so I’m going to give back to my community the best I can.”
While it may take her a minute or two to recall the schedule for each of her two teams, requiring some juggling — “I have good assistants,” she laughed — she has plenty of lessons to impart, many of which she learned from Winfield.
“X’s and O’s. Especially how to relate to your players. You have to interact with them. Coach Winfield, when he was younger, when he coached me, we’d have a drive back in the van, and he’d tell me, ‘Gwen, I want X, Y, Z from you.You can’t disappear sometimes.’ And that’s the thing I tell my players. We have great defense, and we have to rebound. When that’s your job to do, rebound, and I can’t depend on your, I gotta put somebody else out there,” Burton said.
“We want to keep the energy up, because we have a young team. And with a young team, we’re going to make a lot of mistakes. But I told them, ‘Hey, I don’t care about the mistakes, I care about the next play.’ If you make a mistake, so what? Get back (on defense).”
It certainly helped in Saturday’s game that the Crusaders have one veteran in senior Del’Janae Williams. The Indiana State commit had a game-high 28 points, earning game MVP honors, along with Kent City’s Kenzie Bowers.
“She’s stepped up to the plate. She’s stepping out of her comfort zone, being more vocal,” Burton said. “I asked her to be more vocal, and she’s doing it.”
It was Williams’ play that spoke volumes, though.
Bowers, Kent City’s sophomore star, struggled to get in a scoring rhythm in the first half, scoring two points, but heated up in the third quarter, with seven points in the Eagles’ 10-0 run to start the third quarter, opening a 30-23 lead. It was Williams who answered the challenge, scoring seven straight points — four free throws, followed by a three-point play — to tie it back up again.
After a back-and-forth fourth quarter, Jenna Harrison hit a 3-pointer to give Kent City a 37-36 lead, but Marche Borden’s hook shot put King back in front, 38-37, then Williams hit both ends of a one-and-one with 58.7 seconds left to make it a three-point game.
Zara Weber, who led Kent City with 19 points, hit two of three free throws with 6.3 seconds left to make it a one-point game, but the Eagles missed several cracks at tying it up or hitting the go-ahead shot in the final minute.
Kent City was a quarterfinalist in Class C a year ago, losing to Pewamo-Westphalia.
“We’ve got a lot of things we took away from this that we need to work on. We turned the ball over left and right. We had a mixup in what color jersey we were wearing sometimes. I’m embarrassed as a coach that we did what we did, and I guess as a coach, I’ve got some work to do — yeah, it was disappointing,” said Kent City coach Scott Carlson. “And probably to be fair to my girls, we played (Friday) night, and to turn around and play at 11 a.m. the next day … I don’t know, I still expect more than we showed today. I feel like we’re better than that. A lot better than that.”